Every year in August, the small town of Marissa, Illinois, celebrates the fossil fuel that gave it prosperity: coal. The area around the town, which sits about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, used to be known for its number of coal mines, and Marissa was considered its capital.

The celebration, known colloquially as Marissa Coal Fest, is a weekend of carnival-like festivities. This year’s, held from August 11 to 13, included a meet-the-miner event, food stands, and a parade featuring the candidates for the coal court who were vying for the titles of Coal Princess, Coal Prince, and the Queen of Coal. 

A sign reads: Coal Fest. Fri Sat Sunday Parade 4pm
A sign announces Marissa’s Coal Fest, which took place August 11-13, 2023. Virginia Harold

Despite there only being a few actual coal mines left in the area, coal is sacred here. An underground coal mine and power plant still employs a number of people in town and is a source of pride. Prairie State Energy Campus was built during the last wave of coal-fired power plants in the early 2010s, and still employs hundreds of people. 

[Read more about how Midwest communities are grappling with the end of coal culture]

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Though Beverly Terveer was not born in Marissa, and lives in nearby St. Libory, she finds the Marissa community welcoming and friendly. She said that folks around town are the type of people to help each other out after a disaster hits. “It’s a very warm, tight-knit community, but it also has had a big decline because of the coal industry,” said Terveer. 

Despite the fact that Terveer’s house is fitted with a solar panel, a passion project of her late husband’s, she is skeptical of using farmland for renewable energy. 

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“I think we still need to keep the electric power grids going with coal,” she said. She attends the coal festival every year and loves to see the town come together.

A green fire truck leads a column of red fire trucks under a sign announcing the Marissa Coal Fest
Marissa coal parade Virginia Harold

Scenes from the 2023 Marissa Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold

A woman with red hair and a blue shirt sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of a beige house
Beverly Terveer, a Marissa resident and homeowner. She has a solar panel atop her house but still supports the coal-fired power plant just outside of town. Virginia Harold

Beverly Terveer was one of the many locals watching the Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold

Men ride ATV bikes down a residential street as people watch from the lawn
The Rolling Nobles at the Marissa Coal Fest parade Virginia Harold

Most people in town are fiercely protective of coal, and Marissa’s history with commercial coal mining stretches back to the 1850s. Generations of Marissa residents were employed by coal companies — often mom-and-pop operations, unlike the large corporations that dominate the fossil fuel energy sector today. 

For resident Paul Weilmuenster, who was watching the parade from the front porch of his home on Main Street, becoming a coal miner was a no-brainer. 

He started young, at 20, following the career path of his father, who was also a miner. He relished carrying on the tradition. Now, though, he sees how the decline of the industry has meant less investment in the town, a place he’s lived his whole life. 

“Who wants to build a new home, a $300,000 to $400,000 home in Marissa?” said Weilmuenster. 

Still, he’s hoping Prairie State can stay open as long as possible to keep employing local people. 

“So that could be another [400 to 500] people in Marissa losing their jobs — and then what are they going to do?”

A man in a top hat waves at the camera while riding a bike with a paper mache tiger head attached to the front
A man from the Banana Bike Brigade rides a bicycle with a paper-mache lion head attached to the front during the parade. Virginia Harold

A man from the Banana Bike Brigade rides a bicycle with an attached paper-mache lion’s head during the parade. Virginia Harold

A red pickup truck is followed by a marching band dressed in orange uniforms
At the Marissa Coal Festival parade, a truck with a group of veterans is followed by the Marissa Marching Meteors band and cheerleaders. Virginia Harold

Paul Weilmuenster, a former coal miner, watches the parade from his porch with Roy Dean Dickey, a Marissa Village board trustee. Virginia Harold

Two men sit on the front steps of a house
Paul “Paw Paw” Weilmunster, a former coal miner, on his porch next to Roy Dean Dickey, a Marissa Village board trustee Virginia Harold

Although the power plant has served as a huge economic driver for the town, not every Marissa resident has a positive experience with coal. Maria Cathcart is the daughter of a coal miner, but she said that climate change means coal needs to be phased out to prevent further warming from fossil fuel emissions.  

“I see how we’re cutting back on coal, so it is cutting back on, kind of, a tradition, but it needs to be done,” Cathcart said. “We’re tearing apart our world. And we need to stop, because it’s going to get to a point where it’s going to be irreversible.” 

The personal impact of coal on miners’ families was real for her. She remembers her father fondly, but also knows that the career he committed his life to contributed to his death from black lung.

A woman sits in a folding chair looking straight ahead. She has dark hair in a ponytail.
Maria Cathcart, 49, a lifelong Marissa resident and daughter of a coal miner. He died in her arms of black lung. Virginia Harold

“He actually died in my arms, so it really hurt me,” she said. “I was right there when he died.”

Still, she comes every year to the coal festival with her mother, Carmen. Not doing so is out of the question, even though Cathcart’s relationship to coal and the town itself remains complicated. Life in Marissa revolves around the event, and Cathcart cheered in the crowd when the parade started, alongside everyone else.

An older couple sits in folding chairs on one side of an empty street looking across at people in chairs on the other side
Residents line the streets to watch the parade. Virginia Harold

Locals set up chairs to watch the parade. Virginia Harold

Two woman sit in folding chairs and a young girl sits on a blue blanket in front of a crumbling building
Residents set up to watch the parade. Virginia Harold
A man in clown makeup, a red shirt, and fireman hat reading Sparky walks in the parade
Virginia Harold
A young woman in a pink dress rides in the back of a grey convertible
Coal Queen candidate MacKenzie Jetton rides in the Coal Fest parade. Virginia Harold

Coal Queen candidates participate in the parade. Later, they will compete for the title. Virginia Harold

A young woman in a blue dress and sash sits in the back of a red pickup truck decorated with balloons

The Coal Festival includes food, rides, and games as part of the weekend-long celebration. And, as the carnival roars in the background and the sun begins to set, the festivities culminate in the annual crowning of a Coal Prince, Coal Princess, and Coal Queen.

Two people observe a carnival ride
Virginia Harold
Brightly colored carnival rides
The annual Marissa Coal Festival includes rides, games, and food as a part of the weekend-long celebration. Virginia Harold

Scenes from the carnival grounds. Virginia Harold

A stone plaque reads: Dedicated to the coal miners of Southern Illinois
Virginia Harold
Carnival food trucks, including funnel cake
Virginia Harold

Candidates for Coal Queen, Prince, and Princess take the stage.
Virginia Harold
A young boy in flannel, young girl in dark blue, and young woman in bright pink stand together
Virginia Harold

MacKenzie Jetton, a local high school graduate, was named 2023 Coal Queen. Virginia Harold

A young woman in a bright pink gown receives a crown
Virginia Harold

Photography by Virginia Harold